One Way Or Another

1. I posted a few weeks back about my annual NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament pool, which I usually lose in embarrassing fashion, in large part because I over-think things, and make insider-knowledge, micro-aggressive picks that have little to no basis in the macro reality of the sport and its players. This year, though, I actually won my little group’s bracket pool (!), solely because I was the only person to pick Kansas to win the national championship. For perspective, in most standard pick ’em pools, the maximum number of points possible is 224 (32 points per round, over seven rounds). I won my group with but 95 points (42% of the possible best), probably demonstrating less my adeptness at picking outcomes than the general weirdness of this year’s tournament. Had North Carolina held on to defeat Kansas in the championship game, my sister would have won our group. I duly chastised her for picking the detested North Carolina Shitheels, since we’re from a long and devoted North Carolina State Wolfpack family (our grandfather, our father, and her husband were/are alumni there). Snarking ensued. It would have looked like this, had we been together to do it in person:

2. I also recently posted my picks for this year’s Academy Awards, as I also do on a (nearly) annual basis. I didn’t expect CODA to win Best Picture, but I was happy that it did. It is a glorious, wonderful film. There might have been tears involved when I watched it. But I am sure it was just allergies, ahem. I was also happy to see Jane Campion finally win an Oscar for directing The Power of the Dog. She’s great. Even before the now-infamous awards show slap, I was actively opposed to seeing Will Smith win the Best Actor award for King Richard, just as I was actively opposed to his nomination for playing one my deepest personal heroes in Ali. I don’t dislike Will Smith, particularly, but I also can’t get myself interested in the biographical roles that he plays. I was also “meh” on Jessica Chastain winning Best Actress for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, though I expected it. The role seemed more like a triumph of hair styling and make-up design than it did a triumph of acting. That said, I do recognize that I’m probably among a relatively small number of diligent contemporary film buffs who was also regularly exposed to the real Bakkers and PTL Club, having been raised in a deeply devout, television-watching family. Film elite voters are always impressed when film elite actors play mildly-laughable country cracker types, but as a one-time mildly-laughable country cracker myself, I tend to find that urban sophisticate “Oh, these rural folks are so quaint and charming and funny and simple and wise, despite themselves” vibe to be often condescending and offensive. Oh well. At least they didn’t give Lady Gaga an acting Oscar. That really would have rubbed me the wrong way, had they done that.

3. Still on the Oscars, I was utterly appalled by the nominees and the winners of the Best Song and Best Score Awards, given that the masterfully musical Annette by Sparks and Leos Carax was completely ignored on the award-giving front. There’s no question in my mind that the finest song to appear in a film in 2021 was “So May We Start,” from Annette, which actually featured in the film, meaningfully, and also featured cast members singing, unlike most of the utterly dreadful nominated songs, which were mainly just shitty fluff tacked on to soundtrack the credits, opening or closing. (The nominated Van Morrison song from Belfast was an exception to that rule, but I loathe Van Morrison with a passion, so that point was somewhat moot in my own mind). Annette‘s score was also sublime, as opposed to the bloat-by-numbers bullshit that the tiresome Hans Zimmer loaded up upon the already intolerable and soul-lacking Dune, which won the Oscar. Bleh.

4. I generally feel just as foul when it comes to the Grammy Awards, where one would think that the voters would actually know and understand music, since that’s what the awards are for, for God’s sake, unlike the Oscars, where the music is a minor side-light. But their choices, too, are often inexplicably awful, in years where there is inexplicably great, even popular, music being completely ignored. That said, I was mildly surprised and pleased that Silk Sonic won the Song of the Year and Record of the Year Grammy awards last week for “Leave the Door Open,” from the group’s debut album, which featured on my Best Albums of 2021 list. It’s a funny and sweet piece of post-Philly Soul, organic and “real” in ways that so many popular recent examples of assembly-line pop-by-numbers can never begin to replicate. If you don’t know it, it’s worth a quick spin, as is the rest of the album that spawned it:

5. The 1950 American Census data was released on April 1 this year for free search and discovery. You can dig into it here. I found both of my parents (then children) in the data, among other family members. Here’s my Dad’s family (the only Smiths on the page), and here’s my Mom (her surname was Waters). Nothing show-stopping in either of those reports, but still interesting to see what their respective neighborhoods looked like at the time, and how my grandparents described their work and educational experiences.

What Should Be Done

1. Marcia and I have been getting our healthcare insurance coverage for the past 18 months via the COBRA program, which allowed us to receive benefits as part of the last healthcare policy group she’d been a member of at the point when she retired from full-time work. But as our eligibility for that program came to its end, we visited the Federal Healthcare Website to see what our options were for the year(s) to come. We found a very good plan at a very reasonable price with a very nice Federal tax subsidy associated with it, and enrolled in said program accordingly this week. Thank you, President Obama, for that. We appreciate you, always. And we miss you!

2. Bauhaus were a tremendously influential and much appreciated band for me through most of the 1980s, and their successor bands (Love and Rockets, Tones on Tail, and solo projects by members Daniel Ash, David J, and Peter Murphy) kept me rolling in good music for years-to-decades after their original collective creative run petered out. I had read that the original quartet were on tour again this year, but was surprised when they issued a new single (the first new music they’ve released in 14 years) a couple of weeks ago, called “Drink The New Wine:”

The music media have been much impressed by the song’s origins, created via the surrealists’ game trope “exquisite corpse,” in which each of the group’s four members recorded their segments of the song independently, without having heard the other three members’ contributions. The results are shockingly coherent, but, then, that’s the point of the game, in that brilliant collaborative newness may (and in this case, does) emerge from the chaotic creative process behind the work.

But I’ve not seen (m)any members of the critical community recognizing that this is not the first time that Bauhaus have hoed this row, with one of the best songs from one of their best albums (The Sky’s Gone Out, 1982) being titled “Exquisite Corpse,” and being created under the same rubric. Here’s how that one sounded; it’s a personal fave:

Note well that the title of the new song makes it something of a sequel to the title of the earlier song, as they evoke the original surrealist quote penned by André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert, and Yves Tanguy: “Le cadaver exquisite boar le vin nouveau,” which translates in English to “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.” Bauhaus (the group) also deployed this creative technique on a fairly rare b-side, where they titled the track with the band members’ names and the order in which said members created their contributions to the cut in question:

Always happy when artists I admire and respect return from long hiatuses with works that are challenging, yet anchored in their core creative values. Here’s hoping that Messrs Ash, J, Haskins and Murphy continue to make new music under their Bauhaus imprimatur. It’s a good one. I miss it.

3. We finished watching the first season of Our Flag Means Death last night. I’m all in behind the brilliant Taika Waititi, and will pretty much happily watch anything and everything that he does (except for his Marvel Universe Movies, because I boycott superhero and Marvel Universe Movies as a point of principle, as I think them a tired and sore blight on our modern culture) (but I don’t mind Taika making them, if they fund his original work), but even with that expectation for excellence, this series went in ways and places that I’d not imagined it going, and it was all fantastic. Here’s the trailer, as a tease, and I most emphatically recommend it to you:

I’ve read a lot of reviews and analysis of the series over the past few weeks, but few writers seem to have picked up on something that I knew going in, as a fan of the sorts of “tales of human suffering” books that tell stories like this one: lead character Stede Bonnett (played by Rhys Darby) was a real, historical character, who did indeed serve with the legendary Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard) for a period of time. Because my brain is somewhat broken, I found myself playing this musical version of the Blackbeard story on my internal mental jukebox for hours on end, the ear-worm factor in full, florid display:

4. I’ve written at length here over the past 18 months or so about the amazing natural beauty of our home region in Northern Arizona, and its exceptional geological history. I’ve written less often about the human history of the region, but it’s fairly incredible in its own ways. One of the cooler factors about rambling about this part of the country is finding petroglyph sites, where ancient humans left their marks by carving both decorative and utilitarian works of art in the region’s red rocks, often darkened black by microbial growth and aged lichens. I paid a second visit to one of the less known, but visually spectacular, petroglyph sites in our area this week, deeply enjoying these most cool art works, all by my lonesome:

When we’ve read or heard talks about the ancient cultures of our region (most notably the Sinagua People, who left the area en masse around 1400 AD), the writers or park docents do tend to focus heavily on the practical aspects of the places where the Sinagua settlements were developed, but I believe deeply that our ancestors were just as attuned to aesthetic “location, location, location” concerns in their own ways as we are in ours. Yeah, you needed safety and food and shelter and water back then when you decided to pitch camp or develop a settlement, sure, but I’d bet good money that the folks who carved these figures, and others in the area, also sat down at the end of the day, looked out before them, and said “Dang, this sure is a nice spot!” Here’s the view of this site, just before arriving at the rock carvings. Nice spot? Yeah, it is. Definitely.

With Which I Am Well Pleased XV (Chaos Puddles)

Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world over the past month or so. As always, I welcome your suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!

FILMS

TELEVISION

MUSIC

BOOKS

I’ll Keep On Trying

While I continue whithering about various long-term strategies for my website, I do have some new and news-ish items to report, so figure it might be good to return to my old “so many ways to say ‘some stuff’” series for such matters, rather than trying to turn any of them into epic posts or series of their own. I’ll let you figure out what my naming convention for this 2022 update of the form might be . . .

1. I was sad to learn this morning of the death of Ian McDonald, one of the founding members of King Crimson. He and his then-partner Judy Dyble (later the original female lead vocalist for Fairport Convention) were latter-day additions to the line-up of Giles, Giles and Fripp, the immediate precursor band to the Crim. On Crimson’s ground-breaking debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, McDonald was the most prominently featured songwriter, with sole music composition credit (supplemented by Peter Sinfield’s lyrics) on key tracks “The Court of the Crimson King” and “I Talk to the Wind,” along with essential contributions as a songwriter on the album’s other three tracks, and as a brilliant performer throughout the entire album. After the first American tour by the then-skyrocketing Crims, McDonald and drummer Michael Giles left the group, releasing one studio album under their McDonald and Giles banner, supported by Michael’s brother Peter Giles (a fellow Giles, Giles and Fripp alumnus), Peter Sinfield, and Steve Winwood, among others. Their sole record is a mostly-forgotten period gem, but delightful and well worth your investigation. McDonald briefly returned to the King Crimson fold as a guest on Red, the final album of the group’s original 1970s run, playing a superb sax part on their epic song “Starless.” He then went on to found ’70s pop-rock titans Foreigner, appearing on their first three albums. While contemporary critical consensus sort of damns Foreigner to the dust-bin of cheesy ’70s music, I must note that at the time when their first album came out, it was very exciting in my musical circles, and the group seemed like an absolutely possible future of accessible and smart rock and roll, with McDonald’s contributions standing as a key to that sense and assessment. I still love that first Foreigner record, a lot, and like the second one, no matter what other members of the critoisie might think about them retrospectively. I’m sorry to hear that Ian McDonald has flown away too soon, at bottom line, and I deeply appreciate his brilliant contributions to a lot of music from way back when that I did, have, and always will love.

2. Ooo, goody, there’s a new Buggy Jive jam out! I’ve written often here about the artist formerly known as Bryan Thomas over the years, with this piece probably standing as the most representative introduction to his work. His latest release is a five-song EP called I Don’t Understand How the World Works; more information about where and how to nab it available at the Buggy website, here. I’ve spun it half-a-dozen times already this morning, and it’s yet another gem in his crown, soulful, smart, sophisticated and so, so, so well played, sung, and recorded. I highly commend it to you!

3. So the Oscar nominations came out this week, and my core reaction is “meh”-to-“grr” for the most part. I don’t really know why I still care about those awards, honestly, but for whatever reason, the Oscar broadcast and the Super Bowl are the two big cultural television thingies that I still always make a point of watching every year, even though I am almost always disappointed by the experience. As noted in this post, I watched a lot of movies in 2021, many of them truly, truly great. But most of the films that I would consider to be the best of the best of 2021 were ignored by the Academy, which filled its nominations rosters with a lot of hyper-hyped mediocrities and late-release niche films that no one will ever watch, in lieu of various brilliant works, popular and arty alike, out there for the plucking. I won’t dig too deeply into it, but I will note what I consider to be the four most heinous inclusions/exclusions in this year’s roster:

  • No “Best Original Song” nomination for anything from Ron and Russell Mael’s Annette, while the annoying and deeply-distracting Van Morrison score for Belfast resulted in that over-rated, herniated, horrible, little anti-vaxxer, right wing, fake soul troll (who I’ve always loathed, for the record) earning an Oscar nod in this category;
  • Dame Judi Dench receiving a “Best Supporting Actress” nomination for Belfast, while Ruth Negga’s mind-blowing turn in Passing was ignored; I like Dame Judi and I liked Belfast (except for that Van Morrison bullshit), but this was a role that The Dame could play in her sleep, and she doesn’t really need to suck up another Oscar nomination in a category that’s one of the best conduits for emergent talent, does she?;
  • The complete absence of any nominations for The Killing of Two Lovers, which I think was the best film that I saw in 2021, anchored by Clayne Crawford’s exceptional and major award-worthy lead performance; and
  • Dune getting nominated for anything beyond the technical awards, since I think it was a pretty enough thing to look at on a big screen, but a complete failure in terms of casting (e.g. Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides??? Good God, no, no, NO!), screenplay adaptation, editing (three hours to get through half of the book?), and actually being a movie worth caring about or remembering, at all.

Those beefs all noted, here’s how I’d vote right now for the films that were actually nominated this year:

  • Best Feature Film: The Power of the Dog
  • Best Director: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actress: Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Supporting Actor: Troy Kotsur, CODA
  • Best Supporting Actress: Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Original Screenplay: Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World
  • Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Best Film Editing: Peter Scibberas, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Production Design: Stefan Dechant and Nancy Haigh, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Best Costume Design: Jenny Beavan, Cruella
  • Best Make-Up and Hair Design: Nadia Stacey, Naomi Donne and Julia Vernon, Cruella
  • Best Animated Feature Film: The Mitchells vs The Machines
  • Best Documentary Feature Film: Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • Best International Feature Film: The Worst Person in the World
  • Best Original Song: NO VOTE (protesting the exclusion of Ron and Russell Mael for contributing several brilliant songs to their Annette, and also protesting the inclusion of five pieces of musical crap, most especially a nomination for that herniated little over-rated right-wing anti-vaxxer gnome Van Morrison for his totally-distracting contributions to Belfast)
  • Best Original Score: Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog
  • Any Other Best Big-Budget Boom-Boom Zip-Zap Pew-Pew Pretty-Pretty Technical Awards Given to Over-Long Films With No Heart: Dune

I end this post with a link to the unquestionably greatest song to appear in a film in 2021, ignored by the Academy as it was, damn them. Seeing it as it was actually used to advance plot within the film (the opening sequence of Annette featuring the song is not available on Youtube at this point, alas) made it all the greater; it wasn’t just a piece of pop crap purchased and stuck on at the end of film as the credits ran, as is too often the case in the Best Original Song category. Grumble.

With Which I Am Well Pleased XVI (Men of Tain)

Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world over the past month or so. I’m thinking about what I want to do (or do not want to do) here on the website in 2022, and as I do so, this seems a good way to keep things active and interesting. As always, I welcome your suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!

FILMS

TELEVISION

MUSIC

BOOKS

2021: Year in Review

With Christmas behind us and a road-trip to California on the horizon this week, it seems like a good day to sit and settle up the scores for 2021 here at my website, as I normally do at this time each year, plus or minus a few days. Unless I get ambitious, or someone I care about deeply passes away soon, this will likely be the final post of the year, for better and/or for worse.

ON THE BLOG:

In 2020, I surprised myself by publishing 147 posts, the most I’d done since the Poem-A-Day Project in 2004. Retiring from full-time work certainly gave me more time to write, as did COVID-driven cancellations of planned travel, and the need to fill socially isolated time in some satisfying and/or productive fashions. Traffic was robust in 2020, too, with other similarly isolated folks seeking to fill their own suddenly-surplus time online, a trend which I explored more fully (and made future forecasts regarding) in my Coronablogus post last month. For 2021, this post is Number 120, marking about a 20% decrease over last year’s rate of production, in terms of actual new entries on the site. But even with that smaller number of entries, the overall site readership trend was positive, as shown below. (Actual numbers are  edited out, as it’s tacky to share them, and the trend line is what matters; the light-blue pipes are total unique page visits, the dark-blue pipes are total unique visitors, so both grew in 2021):

I’ve owned this domain since the mid-1990s, but prior to 2015, I split my writing between a variety of sites with a variety of hosts, so there’s no easily meaningful visual comparison to make from those times. But at bottom line, the last two years have been quite good ones here, from both audience-engagement and writer-productivity standpoints, things that I most certainly would not have predicted in 2019. Of the 120 original posts this year, 57 were part of the second Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists series, which seems to be popular. I was originally thinking I’d carry it on into 2022, but after a few weeks off, I think it has run its course, and I’m going to put it to bed, for now.

As I report each year, here are the baker’s dozen most-read articles among the 120 new posts here over the past twelve months. It’s probably indicative of the fact that both my readers and I are (mostly) folks of a certain age that obituary-type posts fill such a sizable portion of the most-read roster. Our long-time heroes are leaving us, even as we contemplate our own collective mortality, especially during this, our Anno Virum. On the flip-side, I would note that two of the most life-affirming events for Marcia and I this year (our daughter’s wedding and our adventure in Grand Canyon) also made the Top 13, so it’s good that nice news appeals sometimes as well. Then there’s the odd dichotomy of having had a bit of life-affirmation by returning to our first in-person musical performance since COVID hit us, then seeing one of the artists who sang for us passing away mere weeks later. Both of those reports make the Top 13 below, as do four of the “Favorite Songs” entries. So there’s a bit of everything, tone-wise, which I suppose is just fine and dandy:

And then here are the baker’s dozen posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2021. It always fascinates me which of the 1,000+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on the earliest version of this website. (Note that I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). Once again, here’s hoping that people realize that the perennially-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke, and also, once again, it continues to befuddle me, as always, why my 1999 interview with relatively-obscure guitarist Dave Boquist appears on this “most-read” chart almost every year, receiving far more hits, continually, than my many other interviews with many other far more famous artists. Go figger . . .

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

See this earlier post: Best of My Web 2021

TRAVEL:

We will see 2021 off, God willing and the creek don’t rise, from a condo in San Clemente, California, where we’re headed this week for a winter getaway. After years of somewhat absurd levels of travel, 2021 was quite benign for us: we only spent time in six states, as opposed to the 20+ I’ve experienced for much of the past decade. As I looked at my annual travel map, below, (I’ve pre-filled in our trip to San Clemente, with a planned stop at Joshua Tree National Park), it occurred to me (initially) that this was the first year in my entire life where I never spent any time east of the Mississippi River. But then, as I looked closer, I realized that, yeesh, I never even made it east of the Continental Divide in 2021. That’s a pretty profound paradigm shift, given my deep roots in the Carolinas, and our long stints in New York and the Midwest. If I can do so safely, I do intend to visit my mother in South Carolina in early 2022, and Marcia and I are cautiously hopeful that we may be able to consider international travel again later in the year, if we can do so with undue fear for our personal health and safety. I guess if we had to have a limited travel year, we couldn’t have picked a better place to do it from than our new home in Sedona, Arizona, as there’s plenty of stuff to do and see hereabouts, without having to fly or drive far to achieve the full experience.

RECORDINGS:

See these three earlier posts:

BOOKS:

See this earlier post: Best Books of 2021

FILM AND TELEVISION:

See these two earlier posts:

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward into 2022, with a very deep sense of unease about the ways in which our Nation seems to be careening toward institutional racism and fascism and theocracy. It’s truly frightening to see how the will of a determined minority, intent on using every lever of power available to them (legal or otherwise), seemingly takes priority over the desires and wishes and votes of the remaining majority of the population, among which I count myself. Which is so sad, on so many planes, particularly for someone who once proudly served the Nation as a Federal employee and an active duty service member. Here’s hoping that a year from now, I’ll feel better about these things. But I doubt that’s going to be the case, alas, even if I don’t regularly write about such things here, because I don’t feel like I have a lot to add to the narrative, and it’s intellectually depressing to continually wallow in it.

On a brighter note, I’ve mentioned in passing a few times here over the past year that I’ve been hard at work on a book with long-time friend and Naval Academy classmate Rear Admiral Jim McNeal, co-author of The Herndon Climb: A History of the United States Naval Academy’s Greatest Tradition, which I reviewed here. Jim and I have a contract with McFarland, a publishing house based in North Carolina, to deliver a complete manuscript by the end of January 2022, with publication hopefully targeted before year’s end. If you’ve ever mucked around with the publishing industry, then you know that “instant gratification” is not in cards on projects like this one.

We finished the main-line text (about 75,000+ words) last week, and I then had the pleasure of taking the digital version of it to a local print shop, producing the first physical version of the text for compilation and copy-editing purposes. Our skilled editor is hard at work on the manuscript, per the photo below. And here’s hoping that when I do next year’s version of this annual report, I’ll be able to point you toward a purchase site to acquire our book, should you be interested, and that we’ll be (a) past the worst of the pandemic, and (b) not living in a political place that would make the most dystopian fantasist shudder with revulsion.

I don’t know whether I’ll continue in 2022 to churn out the piffle and tripe at recent levels, or whether your collective engagement with the site will continue to grow and expand. (One of the nice things about doing this as a labor of love, and not a labor of commerce, is that the thought of less traffic in the year ahead does not cause me any agita). But regardless of how all of those things turn out, I will forever be grateful to those of you who care enough to continue supporting my creative endeavors, right here and right now, and I wish all of you and all of yours the very best over the days and months and years to come!

So, did you mean “Let’s eat, Grandma” or “Let’s eat Grandma” here?

Best Television of 2021

As noted, teased and promised in yesterday’s Best Films of 2021 post, this, our viral life, has found me unexpectedly watching far more television over the past two years than I have at any time since (maybe) my early Saturday Morning Cartoons days (and even that’s a bit questionable, time-wise). While I have certainly sat through some disappointing time-wasters over the past year, I’ve also really enjoyed a fair number of things that I don’t think I would have bothered to watch, pre-COVID. And, me being me, that means I have to make a list, and share said list with you.

While these shows do not appear the list below, because they either did not air in 2021, or did not originate in 2021, I do note that I am most excited about the return of Letterkenny later this month, and that we’ve watched the first episode of the normally outstanding The Expanse, which was, alas, kind of meh. I also adored Sherman’s Showcase, which was a 2019/2020 release, but which promises a second season soon. So if this becomes an annual year-end list, then I suspect you’ll see some or all of those three (if The Expanse bounces back during its final five episodes, anyway) in my hypothetical 2022 list.

And with that as preamble, here are my ten favorite multi-episode things that I watched on television over the past year, and that do not qualify (to my mind) as feature films . . .

#10. Brand New Cherry Flavor

#9. Only Murders In The Building

#8. 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything

#7. South Side

#6. Reservation Dogs

#5. Resident Alien

#4. The Beatles: Get Back

#3. Letterkenny

#2. Squid Game

#1. Ted Lasso

Best Films of 2021

What a weird year for movies 2021 has been!

Right off the bat, the obvious defining weirdness is that I have not set foot in a movie theater in almost two years at this point. A bit less obvious: I have not historically been much of a television watcher, but in early COVID days, Marcia and I generally made an active effort to sit together to watch something on television most nights, and that habit has endured through 2021. I have not done so in the past, but as I look at the things that pleased me this year, I think that I probably need to do a “Best Television of 2021” post as part of my year-end wrap-up, covering the “non-movie” portion of our viewing experiences.

I likely watched more feature films in 2021 than in most any other year of my adult life, but I did so from the comfort of our plush command center at home, in front of our big-screen wall-mounted television, and not in a cinema setting. I know a lot of folks might find that disappointing, but I have to say, it’s been pretty great to not have any movies ruined in 2021 by assholes on cellphones or by chatting audience members or by glitchy sound/projection, or by annoyingly bright “EXIT” signs above open doors that admit the sounds of a crowded lobby into my viewing space. I could get used to this. No, scratch that: I have gotten used to this. While I’ll be happy at some point to watch a big-budget film with a popcorn bucket bigger than my head oozing iridescent butter-flavored topping into my lap, for now, I’m all good with the privacy and focus that our home-based paradigm provides.

The other weird aspect in defining “Best Films of 2021” is defining exactly what counts. On a strictly calendar basis, I would certainly cite The Sound of Metal and Promising Young Woman among the very best things released in the past twelve months, but due to the shifts in award scheduling associated with the Anno Virum, both of those films were included in last year’s (belated) Oscar cycle, so it seems counter-productive to praise them now, since they’ve already gotten their award-season due. On the flip side of that, Nomadland also technically came out in 2021, winning a bucket-load of Oscars, and annoying me deeply, as I consider it to be one of the most over-rated films in recent memory, ugh. (I’d give that award for the latter part of calendar year 2021 to Dune.  Two-and-a-half hours to get halfway through the book? No thank you. And Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO, NO!!! And NO!!!!! And did I mention NO!?)

Another weird factor to consider for 2021 movie lists: there were loads of films, mostly foreign ones, that debuted in the international festival circuits in 2019 or 2020, with their producers intending to release them in the United States shortly thereafter, only to have their plans duly and fully virused, like so many other plans, by so many other people. So the various American streaming services ended up offering we United Statesians with our first opportunities to see a lot of killer films from abroad, making them technically 2021 releases as far as domestic eyes are concerned, even though they may already have been a year or two old in terms of their own indigenous release dates. And then there’s the final weird factor with regard to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu and Disney+ and HBO Max, who released their own feature films on their own television platforms, raising the question (again) about what counts as a television show, and what counts as a cinematic film release.

In reviewing the (long) list of everything I watched (however it might be categorized) in 2021, I’ve decided that my basic premises for my Best Films of 2021 list will be to only include domestic films that did not make the deadline for consideration in the most recent Oscar cycle, and to include any non-domestic films that first saw release in any format since the end of that same Oscar cycle. As I originally posted this annual report before the end of both the 2021 calendar and award years, I do note that I have not yet seen several contending films, but I hope to do so before the Oscar broadcast, and I suspect that some of them may well be lifted into the “Best of 2021” list after I have a chance to see them. (Note: I will continue to update all of the lists below up until the Oscars are actually awarded). Please let me know if there are others that I need to prioritize in the weeks ahead.

  • The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet
  • Memoria

With all of that as a long preamble, here are my personal picks for the Best Films of 2021, in three broad categories:

Best New American Feature Films of 2021:

  • Annette
  • Being the Ricardos
  • Belfast
  • The Card Counter
  • Censor
  • C’mon C’mon
  • CODA
  • Concrete Cowboy
  • Cruella
  • Cryptozoo
  • The Dig
  • Don’t Look Up
  • Free Guy
  • The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
  • The Green Knight
  • The Harder They Fall
  • The Killing of Two Lovers
  • Lapsis
  • Last Night in Soho
  • The Lost Daughter
  • The Mitchells vs the Machines
  • Old Henry
  • The Outside Story
  • Passing
  • Pig
  • Plan B
  • The Power of the Dog
  • Red Rocket
  • Saint Maud
  • Say Your Prayers
  • Together Together
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth

Best Documentary Feature Films of 2021:

  • 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
  • The Sparks Brothers
  • Summer of Soul ( . . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • The Velvet Underground

Best Foreign Language Films Receiving First Wide American Release in 2021:

  • About Endlessness
  • Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
  • Bergman Island
  • Dead Pigs
  • The Disciple
  • Drive My Car
  • Flee
  • The Hand of God
  • I’m Your Man
  • Keep An Eye Out
  • Mama Weed
  • Mandibles
  • Night of the Kings
  • Parallel Mothers
  • Titane
  • Undine
  • Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
  • Who You Think I Am
  • The Worst Person in the World

As a bonus feature, because I’m a bonus feature-offering kind of guy, if I had to cast an Oscar Ballot today, here would be my picks among the major categories, or among the minor categories where something really stuck with me for one reason or another. (Note: This list has been edited in real time to reflect the actual nominations, with which I was most displeased, after they were announced in February 2022; I have not had the chance to see the various shorts categories, so do not include them below):

  • Best Feature Film: The Power of the Dog
  • Best Director: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actress: Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Supporting Actor: Troy Kotsur, CODA
  • Best Supporting Actress: Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Original Screenplay: Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World
  • Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Best Film Editing: Peter Scibberas, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Production Design: Stefan Dechant and Nancy Haigh, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Best Costume Design: Jenny Beavan, Cruella
  • Best Make-Up and Hair Design: Nadia Stacey, Naomi Donne and Julia Vernon, Cruella
  • Best Animated Feature Film: The Mitchells vs The Machines
  • Best Documentary Feature Film: Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • Best International Feature Film: The Worst Person in the World
  • Best Original Song: NO VOTE (protesting the exclusion of Ron and Russell Mael for contributing several brilliant songs to their Annette, and also protesting the inclusion of five pieces of musical crap, most especially a nomination for that herniated little over-rated right-wing anti-vaxxer gnome Van Morrison for his totally-distracting contributions to Belfast)
  • Best Original Score: Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog
  • Any Other Best Big-Budget Boom-Boom Zip-Zap Pew-Pew Pretty-Pretty Technical Awards Given to Over-Long Films With No Heart: Dune

It’s not getting a lot of media attention, and it got no Oscar love when the nominations were announced, but this is truly a remarkable film, and I recommend it to you, most heartily.